Foods for Athletes: Fueling for Performance


Jen Haugen, RDN, LD, Down-to-Earth Dietitian

As a teen or young adult, are you super involved in an athletic training program or exercise routine? Whether it’s for personal goals, or the athletic training is a part of college life or being fit for a job, I bet you have questions as to what are the best foods for athletes. Fueling for performance doesn’t have to involve a lot of extra powders and shakes. Below I am sharing my top five tips to smart foods for athletes and what every young adult athlete should know.

There are specific nutrients athletes need, specifically carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Fueling your body for performance is going to play a key role in reaching your fitness goals. Whether you do the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week, or if you do a lot more than that, these recommendations apply to both dedicated and competitive athletes, as well as athletes that are more recreational in nature.

Keep reading to learn which foods for athletes are the best, including the foods you need for training and adequate recovery with ideal timing too.

Nutrition for Athletic Performance

There are several nutrients to pay attention to here: fluids, calories, carbs and protein.


Water is THE most important nutrient for athletic performance because it keeps your body at the right temperature. During one hour of vigorous exercise, you can lose several liters of sweat. And as little as a a 2% drop in hydration in your body can negatively impact your performance.

How do you know how much fluid to drink? Clear urine is a sign of adequate hydration. So keep this in mind and be sure to drink plenty of fluids even if you won’t be exercising right away. And when you are exercising, drink the recommended amounts at the times listed below, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Did you know, heat stroke, associated with dehydration ranks second among the reported causes of death among high school athletes?  


If you are very physically active, you are going to need a lot more calories than someone who is not active at all, or even lightly active. You need to fuel your body’s strength and energy it needs to perform. BUT, be careful. A lot of people overestimate the number of calories burned during workouts.

For example, a competitive male athlete needs 2,400-3,000 calories per day. A competitive female athlete needs 2,200-2,700 calories per day. If you are not competitive, you do not need this much.

To calculate your specific calories needed – this is my favorite calculator from Mayo Clinic, you can find it here: calorie calculator


Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. And as an athlete, carbs are the fuel your muscles burn when they are working. Most of your calories should come from carbs.

The best carbs are the ones that provide the most nutrients like whole grain breads, pastas, rice, vegetables, fruits, 100% fruit juices, and even milk. Here are some examples:

Whole grain bagel
Whole grain bread
Soft tortilla
Baked potato
Fresh fruit
Fruit smoothie
Pancakes with fruit
Vegetables with hummus
Whole grain bread/toast
Canned fruit
Squeeze applesauce
Granola bar

Note: Going “low carb” for sports has unintended consequences. It affects your energy level negatively, as well as affects your thinking and concentration. Plus not having enough carbs can cause muscle fatigue and breakdown and the lack of ability to perform at a higher physical intensity.


Protein is an essential component of muscles (plus it’s important in healing, bone health, immune function, digestion and brain health too). If you are focusing on muscle-building resistant exercises, it’s particularly important as well.

Once carb stores are used up during a workout, your body can turn to protein as an alternative fuel source. That’s why some athletes need more protein than non-athletes. For example, many athletes need up to 2 grams of protein per kilogram per day. Or if intense training, then up to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram per day. (Take your weight and divide by 2.2 to get kilograms)

To use 2.0 grams per kilogram for athletes as an example:

At 130 pounds (59 kg), a maximum of 118 grams per day
At 150 pounds (68 kg), a maximum of 150 grams per day
At 175 pounds (79 kg), a maximum of 159 grams per day
At 200 pounds (90 kg), a maximum of 181 grams per day

That doesn’t mean however to fill up only on protein powder or protein supplements. If you are eating enough calories, you are likely getting enough protein from the foods you are already eating. (Many Americans already eat twice the protein they really need.) And it also doesn’t mean to get all that protein in one shot. It’s better to divide protein over the course of several meals during the day. So for example, 25-35 grams (depending on your daily needs) at each of your three meals, plus snacks.

Healthy protein sources for athletes are lean meats like chicken, turkey, lean pork like tenderloin, and lean ground beef and sirloin. Generally the words “loin” or “round” in the title of the cut, indicate it is a leaner choice. Also, eggs, low-fat dairy foods like yogurt, cheese and milk, as well as nuts and beans are good sources of protein.

Example grams of protein in various foods:

3 ounces of chicken breast (the size of a deck of cards) = 26 grams
3 ounces lean sirloin steak = 26 grams
3 ounces lean pork loin = 23 grams
3 ounces lean ground beef = 22 grams
3 ounces salmon = 23 grams
3 ounces tuna canned in water = 20 grams
1 ounce whey protein powder = 17 grams
1/2 cup cottage cheese = 14 grams
5 ounces greek vanilla yogurt = 13 grams
8 ounces milk = 8 grams
1 ounce cheese (the size of your thumb) = 6 grams
1 egg = 6 grams
1/2 cup kidney or black beans = 8 grams
2 tablespoons peanut butter = 9 grams
1/3 cup hummus = 6 grams
23 almonds = 6 grams
1 ounce sunflower seeds, shelled = 5 grams
8 ounces almond milk = 2 grams

As you can see from this list, some food sources are higher in protein than others. How do you put this together?

Nutrition for Different Workouts

By consistently eating a range of nutrient-dense foods (meaning they have a lot of nutrition) and staying hydrated, you will improve your performance over time. Here are a few tips for foods for athletes during different workouts:

Before any workout:

To avoid dehydration: Drink 2 cups of water about 2 hours before your workout.

Pro tip: If you want to measure the approximate amount of fluids you lose by working out, weigh yourself immediately before and after the workout. The difference in weight is mostly due to the water you lost.

When it comes to food, if your goal is to improve your athletic performance, don’t exercise on an empty stomach. Have a small meal, with carbs that also have fiber (like fruit, whole grains) and only small amounts of fat, about 60-90 minutes beforehand.

Here are some good examples:

If you are going to workout for less than one hour:

Water is your fluid of choice. Drink up to 1 cup every 15-20 minutes throughout the workout.

If you are going to workout for more than an hour:

Before you get started, have some carbs and limit the fat. That can be a glass of juice, cup of yogurt or bread with jam.

If you are planning an intense aerobic workout, you will also want to have lots of fluids and carbs. Drink up to 1 cup of water every 15-20 minutes for the first hour.

For your second and subsequent hours, you will need to replace lost electrolytes and carbs. It is at this point you can switch to a sports drink if you want. Aim for 5-10 ounces every 15-20 minutes. If you choose to stick with water instead of a sports drink, add in some pretzels or granola with dried fruit to replace electrolytes.

After any workout: 

Exercise depletes your fluid and energy, especially if you are working hard. In general, replace the weight you lost during your training session with fluids. That means for every pound you lose exercising, drink about 3 cups of fluid over the next 6 hours.

If you were active for less than 60 minutes, you can replace the lost fluid with water.

If you exercise 60-90 minutes, then you can choose a sports drink. And you don’t need the sports drinks with extra vitamins because you don’t lose vitamins when you sweat.

If you trained for 90 minutes or more, you will want to have carbs and protein in the right ratio within 30 minutes, or at least within 2 hours. This can be peanut butter with crackers, trail mix with nuts, yogurt with granola, or a smoothie.

Fruit juice and soda are not recommended for rehydration due to their high sugar content which can cause cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Carbonation can make you feel full and your throat can burn.

Also, energy drinks are not recommended for children, teen and young athletes. The American Pediatric Association notes that there are health risks due to the stimulants in the energy drink and most are not formulated for athletes’ needs. For adult athletes, practice caution, but there are risk with blood pressure and heart conditions that the athlete may be unaware of.

Examples of breakfasts with adequate carbs and protein:

Common Questions:

Is milk a good food for athletes? 

Definitely. Milk and dairy foods have a ton of calcium and vitamin D. You can’t often find the same amounts in other foods. Choose milk at every meal to ensure you get enough calcium and vitamin D each day to maintain bone health. It also contains protein, potassium, phosphorus and other vitamins that are essential for fueling your performance. In fact, the best thing you can drink within 30 minutes after your workout is an 8-12 ounce glass of chocolate milk. It has the right carbohydrate and protein ratio to refuel your body and muscles.

Is eating a candy bar before vigorous activity a good idea?

For endurance activities of 90 minutes or more, a sugary snack food, like a candy bar before exercise may enhance your energy. But natural simple carbs are just as good for athletes too, like bananas, fig newton bars, graham crackers, raisins, fruit leathers and bread with jam. However, if you have a sugary snack, keep it small. No more than 200-300 calories worth. Too much sugar may slow the time it takes water to leave your stomach; and then your body won’t replace fluids as quickly. A sports drink has some sugar to fuel your muscles but not enough.

Are energy bars, bites or gels for extra energy a good food for athletes? 

While these foods are marketed to athletes, they don’t have special powers. Most have carbs or protein to sustain a short power surge, and some contain caffeine. Those with fiber may have more staying power. They may be an option when snack choices are limited or if other solid foods in the middle of a workout create digestive discomfort, but not to replace a meal. They are also costly.

Does extra protein build more muscle? 

This is a myth. Only athletic training builds muscle strength and size. It’s true that protein is important for athletes, but eating more protein beyond what’s needed for athletes (2.0 grams per kilogram per day), whether it’s from food or supplements or powders does not make a difference.

Also, amino acid supplements don’t increase muscle size or strength either. Amino acids are simply the building blocks of protein, and 20 different amino acids link to make proteins and to your body, amino acids are no different than those found naturally in food. And from food they “taste better” and cost much less.

Bottom Line on Foods for Athletes

Fueling your body properly will improve your performance. The first nutrient to consider is water, so be sure to hydrate well before, during and after the training/performance. Make sure you are getting enough calories and carbohydrates and not overdoing it on protein. And choose foods that have a lot of nutrition most often.

Are you looking for a unique way to bring this to life with teammates or athletes you work with? Schedule a culinary nutrition seminar virtually from Jen’s kitchen, where you will see new ideas for recipes and personal recommendations for the environment in which you live (dorm room with no kitchen, apartment with kitchen, etc). 

The best source of nutrition info, is always a credentialed registered dietitian. Schedule your seminar below!

Connect with Jen

The post Foods for Athletes: Fueling for Performance appeared first on Jen Haugen .


Garlic and Herb Squash Casserole

Previous article

The Difference Between Fillers and Neurotoxins

Next article

You may also like


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in Diet